Kathryn Ledbetter’s book presents a valuable contribution to the scholarship of British women’s periodicals in the nineteenth century. The few studies of women’s magazines to date have been broad, providing summaries or anthologies. Just as scholars have ignored women’s magazines, so they have ignored poetry in women’s periodicals dismissing it as poorly-written and frivolous space-filler. Ledbetter explores the role and purpose of poetry in women’s lives and the effects of its inclusion in periodicals designed for a female audience in nineteenth-century Britain. She argues that poetry was meant as a civilizing agent in which women readers and writers were to be the missionaries of morality, domesticity, and charity: that is, the appropriate social and gendered behavior of women as defined by the Victorian ideology of separate male and female spheres. Women’s periodicals and the poetry within them provided domestic empowerment for women isolated in the private sphere of the home. Poetry in Victorian women’s periodicals allowed women not only to be readers, but also published poets and writers. Ledbetter concludes, “the mission of poetry in Victorian women’s periodicals was to perpetuate and teach ideologies of patriotism and empire, feminine moral superiority, Christianity, philanthropy, and the appreciation of beauty, family, marriage, and love” (207).
The most compelling part of Ledbetter’s argument is her focus on poetry published in women’s magazines as subversive of the gendered status quo defined by separate spheres ideology. Poetry’s emphasis on individual and private emotion situated it as a feminine avocation in the nineteenth century. But with poetry increasingly published in affordable weekly or daily magazines throughout the century, it became accessible for readers of all classes. According to Ledbetter, readers of women’s magazines learned to appreciate poetry through not only the poems themselves, but also the reviews of poems and special articles about the poets. Furthermore, female readers could become contributors to the magazine, often advised through the magazine editor’s correspondence columns. According to Ledbetter, “a deceptive confidence in separate spheres ideology may lead to a perception that such a gendered space is private, when it is actually a public space packaging private emotions, a subversive activity contradictory to the dictums of domestic ideology encoding the woman’s periodical” (13).
Ledbetter admits that the ideology of separate spheres was contested by both contemporaries living in nineteenth-century Britain and by historians today. Her central argument, however, asserts the opposite and requires closer scrutiny. Although acknowledging the complexity and conflicting nature, as well as questioning the reality of separate spheres for men and women in nineteenth-century Britain, Ledbetter proceeds to argue that poetry in women’s magazines portrayed a positive feminine and domestic power centered in the home throughout the entire century. She writes, “poetry is a short-track to the ideology of its moment, existing on the pages of most women’s magazines as a prolific testament to the utility of sentiment, patriotism, domestic ideology, and traditional values” (9). Ledbetter’s claim that poetry’s focus on this traditional femininity gave women a powerful role in an otherwise oppressive position in society would gain from the insights of Patricia Branca’s Silent Sisterhood: Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home (1975) and Elizabeth Langland’s Nobody’s Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture (1995). These scholars recognize that such “feminine” empowerment was limiting since women continued to be restricted within well-defined gendered boundaries; a point that Ledbetter does not address.
Ledbetter seems to claim this finite focus on traditional femininity of the “Angel in the House” is accepted and embraced by women (as much as men) and continues to empower women. Is this a fair assumption? If poetry and more generally, women’s magazines, continue to promote domesticity, home, family, philanthropy, and morality as characteristics of a traditional, yet empowering femininity for women to embrace in spite of the increased opportunities to participate publicly in work, leisure, and politics, does this not indicate a rising anxiety about women’s departure from the home? For example, she cites Ada Ballin’s poem, “A Successful Woman,” in a May 1900 issue of Womanhood: The Magazine of Women’s Progress and Interests as evidence that “modern women still prefer companionship over public acclamation….The privileging of intimate relationships over wealth and fame clearly shows that the threat posed by the New Woman model to domestic ideology was benign” (40). Could the emphasis on conventional romance and marriage be a backlash to calm the anxiety about the New Woman and to restrain the widening opportunities for women in the public sphere? Is it possible that these increasingly independent women are trying to make their forays out into the public sphere more acceptable by insisting that public activities do not endanger feminine domesticity? For example, in Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (2000), Erika Rappaport illustrates how the development of the department store in London in the 1860s created a freedom of movement and a new female urban culture for middle-class women that challenged and redefined traditional femininity embodied in separate spheres ideology. The research of Patricia Hollis in Women in Public, 1850-1900: Documents of the Victorian Women’s Movement (1979) and Margaret Finnegan in Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (1999) illustrate female reformers’ and suffragists’ attempts to emphasize their traditional femininity while participating in social and political reform as a way to assuage anxiety about women’s increased public involvement.
The continuity Ledbetter finds in poetry published in women’s magazines in fact might depict more change than she would like to admit: namely, the increased opportunities for women, the anxiety surrounding women participating in public, and the strategies employed by public women to make acceptable their new roles. An understanding of wider social and political movements and their effects on poetry and women’s magazines would provide more complexity since women reformers and suffragists often used magazines (including poetry) to recruit and expand opportunities for women. Although Ledbetter does include poetry such as “Parli’ment’ry Voting. Sally in Our Alley” in a November 1890 issue of Women’s Penny Paper, which supports voting for women, she interprets these works as exceptions, leaving the reader to assume that any movements toward change for women in nineteenth-century Britain were small and inconsequential (42).
Ledbetter attempts to thoroughly research poetry in a variety of women’s periodicals published for female readers of all classes. The strong focus on poetry centered on women’s domesticity with the majority of examples cited from New Monthly Belle Assemblée, Young Englishwoman, Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, Lady’s Newspaper, and Woman’s World, indicates an argument primarily centered on middle-class readers, editors, and magazines. Although the expectation was that all classes emulate the middle-class ideology of separate spheres, Ledbetter does not present enough evidence to prove that working women’s magazines were as focused on domesticity as were middle-class women’s periodicals. Working-class women were in the public because they worked, and could not meet the standards of femininity and beauty prescribed for middle-class women. Although her research is strong and her analysis of poetry in women’s magazines from the early and mid-nineteenth century is solid, by not indicating any difference between the early, middle, or late Victorian periods, Ledbetter obscures the immense social, political, economic, and cultural change which took place for women and in the publishing industry over the course of the century.
Still, Ledbetter presents a significant contribution to the canon of scholarship on Victorian women’s periodicals by highlighting the value of poetry and its influence upon women’s lives. Her strongest chapters—the second, third, and fourth-- explore women’s role as agents of Christian morality, philanthropy, and civilization; describe how women’s magazines commodified beauty through the use of poetry and illustrations; and reveal the subversive role magazines had in creating female poets out of female readers. Overall, Ledbetter’s work provides a comprehensive foundation for scholars of poetry, literature, and periodicals. If poetry is an expression of our imagination, which is, as Letitia Elizabeth Landon wrote in the November 1832 issue of the New Monthly Magazine, the “beginning as well as the ornament of civilization,” then Ledbetter’s book challenges us to examine the role of poetry and contemplate its significance in our private and public lives today (1).
Christine A. Anderson received her Ph.D. in British history from the University of Kansas in 2008. Her dissertation, “(Per)Forming Female Politics: The Making of the ‘Modern Woman’ in London, 1890-1914” explored the intersection among modernity, class, femininity, politics, theatre and performance and argued middle-class women used their experiences of living and working within the cultural milieu of London to shape a modern femininity, which incorporated a political consciousness.